Climate Action

Fifty years on, Earth Day 2020 must achieve awakening for climate change

John Heritage worked for Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day. He is a retired environmentalist and writer living in Washington, D.C.

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, turned out 20 million people in response to pollution across the United States. This day created a national awakening to the deteriorating environment.

Fifty years later, Earth Day 2020 can achieve a similar awakening for climate change, as extreme weather events and mass extinctions spread around the world.

Earth Day 1970 began with a meeting of just three people in early September 1969. The meeting included the founder of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson, and two assistants, including myself. Senator Nelson told us to begin organizing environmental teach-ins on college campuses: essentially lectures or discussions about environmental degradation and what we can do to reverse it.

Meanwhile, the senator recruited Denis Hayes from Harvard as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the country.

I have often felt that nothing could have stopped the creation of that first Earth Day. People were ready for change and wanted to see results. In the several years after that first Earth Day, public support for legislative action grew tremendously, with U.S. Congress passing and President Richard Nixon signing key environmental laws that form a basis of our protections today.

Now, as global awareness of climate impacts grows, the seeds are in place for once again enacting major legislative change, this time coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Make no mistake: We are confronting a planetary crisis that will require a sustained global response. Humans cannot maintain a continually improving state of being unless we cope with the rise in global temperature and its impacts.

We need mass mobilizations — like we saw when people pressured international governments to pass the Montreal Protocol, or when citizens dedicated their energy to World War II efforts — for governments to take action on climate change. Earth Day 2020 has the potential, as a critical historical moment, to facilitate that kind of public pressure on elected officials.

Nearly all the world’s governments, through the United Nations, are working to meet carbon goals set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Unfortunately, the United States, which has provided leadership in the past, is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. A loud and unified public voice for action, like we saw in the first Earth Day, may change the direction of U.S. climate policy.

As millions take to the streets on April 22 for Earth Day 2020, we must push our elected officials toward significant legislative action against climate change. Register to join the EARTHRISE movement for the future of our planet, and sign up to receive updates